Hollywood mostly provides escapism during hard economic times, but there is a continuous commentary on American materialism in its smaller films. Across the 70s, 80s, and up until the present recession, protagonists struggle against their materialist instincts. Some use recession as a chance to conquer their fears of economic loss. Others try to sequester a space for spirituality and fail. Consider the year 1973 in film, a pivotal milestone in U.S. economic history marking the end of the post-World War II economic boom.
It was the start of hard times for many Americans, setting a standard for anxious and meager living that many had not known since the Great Depression. Unemployment was high, inflation was high—oil prices were escalating due to an Arab oil embargo.
Real income growth for working-class Americans stagnated. The Watergate scandal stalled the White House policy shop. Save the Tiger, a Jack Lemmon vehicle, set the tone for 1973. It concerns an upper middle-class man disgusted and bored with capitalist economic impulses and nostalgic for the spiritual and moral satisfaction of his youth. The protagonist Harry Stoner is curious about genuine passion when he sees it, especially when he walks by a conservationist promoting a “Save the Tiger” campaign.
He meets up with a hippie just for the diversion of novel conversation and conveys his nostalgia to the young girl: “I want that girl in a Cole Porter song. I wanna see Lena Horne at the Cotton Club - hear Billie Holiday sing fine and mellow - walk in that kind of rain that never washes perfume away. I wanna be in love with something. Anything. Just the idea. A dog, a cat. Anything. Just something.” Stoner gives into his materialist tendencies in the end. He has no young children to support; his decision to retain his economic status at all costs is strictly personal. When his clothing factory risks bankruptcy, he hires a professional arsonist to torch it for the insurance money. The film concludes with Stoner watching a little league baseball game, wishing for his youth’s return. Jack Lemmon excelled at endowing the desperate with a sympathetic streak.
The 1980-82 recession, when the national unemployment rate went above 10 percent, produced a dark film portrait of materialism run amok. The Border (1982) concerns the U.S.-Mexico border, and spotlights economic insecurity on both sides. It was the American era that produced the Sunbelt phenomenon, driving displaced Midwestern and Northeastern industrial workers south in search of pools, patios and paychecks. Jack Nicholson plays border patrol agent Charlie Smith, who faces an internal inflict similar to Harry Stoner’s. Charlie wants a simpler life, regardless of the pay. He misses his old job at parks and recreation. “I sure miss feeding those ducks,” he remarks. His wife Marcy obsesses with advancing their social status and stockpiling material goods. She furnishes their new duplex in El Paso, Texas with a water bed and other comforts.
At a time when most families are cutting back, Marcy overspends. To balance his family budget, Charlie consents to help his border patrol colleagues with their illegal immigration trade, but quickly regrets the decision and literally draws a line in the sand. Charlie detests Marcy’s consumerism, to the extent that he abuses her physically. “No more, Marcy,” he screams at his wife. “No more’s no more. No more does not mean more, and more, and more! No more means no more!” Exhausted by his home life, Charlie helps a young Mexican woman named Maria find safe crossing to the U.S. and recover her lost baby. He wants to feel good about something, he tells Maria. Maria ultimately gets sent right back over the border to Mexico, but she does recover her child.
Today’s Hollywood portraits of hard times have brightened. Redemption is possible. Materialism can be mastered. Everything Must Go (2011) tells the predicament of Nick Halsey, a middle-age salesman who has lost job due to a relapse into alcoholism. Nick, played by Will Ferrell, soon finds that he is homeless as well; his wife has locked him out of his home and piled his belongings on the front lawn.
To stay within the law living in his yard, Nick holds a yard sale for all his things. A neighborhood kid, Kenney, helps Nick sell his stuff in return for baseball lessons and a share of the profit. The metaphor of material clutter symbolizing spiritual clutter is an old one, but Ferrell acts Nick’s self-renewal so coolly that it seems genuine. Nick shortens the lonely hours with six-packs of beer; unemployment never seemed this much fun. Maybe a little peace and friendship is Nick’s reward for moving with the ebbing economic tide instead of fighting it. He is mostly content to live with less instead of using his sudden loss as an excuse to fight for more.
The lives of Harry Stoner, Charlie Smith, and Nick Halsey speak to an axiom of American culture since colonial history, the myth of abundance.
British journalist William Cobbett described the American diet in 1817, “you are not so much pressed to eat and drink, but such an abundance is spread before you…that you instantly lose all restraint.” David Potter’s People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character (1954) describes this national urge for the infinite during its height, just after World War II established U.S. economic and military hegemony.
But recession tests that appetite. It forces restraint on personal level and a national level. These three films suggest that restrain and acceptance is possible in hard times, if unlikely. At his Dartmouth College commencement speech this May, comedian Conan O’Brien expressed artfully the reward that awaits those who tolerate hard times. “Whether you fear it or not, true disappointment will come,” O’Brien said, “but with disappointment comes clarity, conviction and true originality.”